Reviews for the new Oliver Stone flick, Snowden, have begun to trickle in from the Toronto International Film Festival and it may come as a surprise that some critics are into it.
Promotional image: Open Road Films, Snowden
When the full trailer first appeared it had a lot to groan about. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's impression of Snowden is distracting. To portray the whistleblower as some sort of coding genius blowing away NSA analysts with his skill, the trailer commits the cardinal sin of hacking movies — displaying "data" as an eye-popping barrage of graphics. Also, the appearance of Nicolas Cage, in any trailer, always gets a laugh from the audience these days. (We love you Cage, never change.) All and all the trailer looked like a big stroke-off for a fairly ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing. It's also some very good PR.
But now that it has premiered, the critics takes are generally mixed-to-positive. Here's what they're saying.
Citizenfour is better, but this is fine.
On the whole, Snowden is less cringey than it could have been. This is not a film with the sharp, incisive clarity of Laura Poitras's beguiling 2014 Snowden documentary Citizenfour. (Melissa Leo plays Poitras in Stone's film.) But as a more mainstream appreciation of Snowden's bold deeds, a (slightly) more commercially palatable vehicle for a particular political message, Snowden succeeds. [Vanity Fair]
The film may have some fresh insight up its sleeve.
You might think you already know. Maybe you decided, a while back, that Snowden is a "traitor," or that he went too far in leaking documents and revealing NSA secrets. Or maybe you saw "Citizenfour," the 2014 Laura Poitras documentary that presented the interview Snowden gave just as he was going rogue, and you decided he's one of the heroes of our time. But whether you're pro-Snowden, anti-Snowden, or somewhere in between, Stone's movie is sure to deepen your response to his actions, and to the whole evolution of the American intelligence community in the age of meta-technology. [Variety]
Oliver Stone could, once again, face controversy for playing loose with the facts.
The whole film will be controversial — as I said Oliver Stone is back! — but there are two moments that could be more contentious than others. One involves the suggestion that there were co-conspirators inside the NSA who helped or encouraged Snowden to get away with the files. The other is Stone's portrayal of moments in Hong Kong during which Snowden was speaking with Poitras but her camera was off. Stone uses these to allow Gordon-Levitt to narrate chunks of action. Were there really such off-camera moments between the two? [New York Daily News]
The style is more sober than many films by Stone but there is an over-the-top sex scene.
The central plot of "Snowden" is so straightforward it makes you pine for the wilder filmmaker of "Natural Born Killers" who would really dig into the zeitgeist of today's digitally addicted society. Glimmers of the filmmaker's unhinged tendencies crop up in some of the bigger sequences, chief among them an audacious sex scene that outdoes "Munich" in its overstatement: As Lindsay mounts her lover in the dark, his eyes drift to a dormant laptop camera as he grows increasingly paranoid about losing his privacy. It's an absurd moment that works, as Snowden's mounting fears mirror those of the American public in the wake of his revelations. [IndieWire]
Most say that Gordon-Levitt's performance is either serviceable or good.
The voice quickly wins you over, or at least it won me over. Gordon-Levitt's performance gradually seems less stunty and more like a well-observed, full-bodied character study. It's way more successful than his cringey turn as Philippe Petit in last year's The Walk, anyway. [Vanity Fair]
It doesn't portray Snowden as superhuman after all but that may hurt the film dramatically.
Virtually every directorial choice is aimed at making Snowden's life seem more conventional and it results in the majority of scenes feeling like a lifeless construct. [The Guardian]
Unfortunately, none of the characters besides Snowden add much to the film.
Gordon-Levitt gives, by design, a mostly reactive performance as Snowden, but he's one of the few characters who's allowed to have some shading; almost everyone else onscreen is hemmed in by their function of the plot, thus reducing them to one or two personality traits, whether it's Zachary Quinto's barking righteousness as Glenn Greenwald or Timothy Olyphant's sleazy CIA operator, sporting the kind of pompadour that ensures you would never buy a used car from this man. [The Wrap]
But Edward Snowden himself digs it.
How would he score it out of 10? He avoids a rating. "On the policy questions, which I think are the most important thing for the public understanding, it's as close to real as you can get in a film." [Financial Times]
You can find out for yourself whether it's just a pedestrian retread of a great documentary or a solid mainstream thriller when Snowden opens in US theatres this Friday.